Local governments and the services they provide are reliable ports in the storm during times of crisis – performing critical public safety functions, connecting residents with urgent information and resources, and fulfilling responsibilities that keep residents and businesses going until the emergency has passed. Often, these functions come with a human touch, such as helpful interactions with knowledgeable staff at city and town halls.

Not this time. The COVID-19 emergency makes face-to-face meetings largely out of the question, requiring city and town officials to walk a challenging line of continuing to provide essential municipal services while protecting the health of municipal employees and the public.

Across Massachusetts last month, mayors, city and town managers, city councils and select boards had to quickly pivot from business-as-usual to business without precedent.

From Cape Cod and Greater Boston to Worcester County, the North Shore and western Massachusetts, cities and towns across the Commonwealth have scrambled, collaborated and innovated to keep municipal services flowing and lines of communication with constituents open. Their resilience provides a note of normalcy during uncertain times.

“Government officials at all levels are facing monumental challenges in this unprecedented public health crisis,” said Auburn Town Manager Julie Jacobson, president of the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association.

Jacobson said information-sharing forums provided by the MMA and the Management Association reveal many common concerns, including planning for backfilling positions if essential employees are infected with COVID-19, learning new technology platforms for remote meetings, and keeping work areas clean and disinfected in the face of difficulties procuring cleaning supplies.

Like many other Massachusetts communities, Auburn has closed its town hall (and other town buildings) to the public through at least May 4. Town Hall employees are working from home as much as possible, with minimal in-building staffing for essential functions that can’t be done at home. Examples include using software that can’t be accessed remotely due to security systems (for payroll and accounts receivable/payable, for example), and certain town clerk functions that require in-office access to databases, original documents, legal documents and licenses.

Jacobson signed an executive order governing work-at-home and in-office protocols on April 6.

Other staffing models that have emerged around the state include offering town and city hall visits only by appointment (Boston and Methuen, for example); and rotating skeleton staffs (sometimes labeled teams A and B, as in the towns of Shrewsbury and Upton) to ensure some in-building presence for most departments for at least part of each day. Most city and town halls are encouraging residents to conduct business, such as tax payments, online.

The town of Yarmouth has set up UPS-style boxes where residents and businesses can drop off documents for processing. Noting that pre-summer construction planning is underway on Cape Cod despite COVID-19, Yarmouth Town Administrator Dan Knapik said his town placed a drop-off box at Town Hall last Friday, and by Monday morning, four contractors had dropped off project plans for review. He said the local economy depends on a steady flow of permit reviews and approvals, so businesses can hit the ground running once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Since the early days of the crisis, Knapik said, the ability to connect with other municipal officials via MMA conference calls and online communications has been an invaluable way to share ideas for navigating uncharted territory, including staffing of town offices.

One topic that’s generating considerable buzz is the increasing and critical role technology is suddenly playing in municipal operations. Hopedale, for example, established virtual private networks (VPNs) for essential personnel, while department heads in Wellesley are conducting meetings with Zoom and Citrix. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno holds daily morning meetings with his cabinet by video conference.

Last week, the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security announced an arrangement with LogMeIn giving municipalities and school districts free access, for 90 days, to a remote-working kit that includes remote meeting hosting and attendance software. (Click here for more information.)

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 15.2 percent of local government employees regularly worked remotely from 2017 to 2018. That is changing not just in Massachusetts, but nationwide, as workers move to home offices to abide by social distancing protocols. And, while the learning curve has been abrupt and steep, some see this as a trend that could persist after the COVID-19 crisis passes.

“Overall, we’re used to it now. It’s kind of the new way,” said Walpole Town Administrator Jim Johnson, who organized his first Zoom meeting for key staff on March 15. “This may change things, even after the crisis.”

For that first meeting, Johnson said, close to half the 30 to 40 participants joined on their phones, leery of the online meeting platform. Now, only a handful use the phone, the rest attending his weekly meetings via the Zoom app. Johnson said other town managers have reached out to him for advice about using Zoom.

“Standing up the technology has been a challenge,” said Dominick Pangallo, chief of staff for Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. “But we’ve been able to provide most employees with the devices and access to remote desktop and online software systems. A lot of our business processes have involved paper, like invoice processing and payroll. And, while we had hoped to move away from paper before the outbreak, this certainly accelerated that effort.”

Knapik agrees that the COVID crisis could be a game-changer in terms of municipalities’ appetite for conducting more business online. A key consideration, he said, is ensuring that meeting moderators know how to keep meetings cybersecure.

“When this is over, town government will have advanced its technological ability by light years,” Knapik said.

Written by Lisa Capone